With at least another week of unusually hot summer weather to come, the Texas electric grid is “tired.” That was the assessment of Rob Allerman, senior director of power analytics at Enverus when I spoke to him recently.
“We’re all tired of the heat here in Texas, and the grid’s tired, too,” Allerman says. “We’re seeing more and more outages, and that just makes sense, right? We’ve been hot since May, and so the units have been running constantly, and some of those units are quite old. And so, things just start to wear down and break.”
Texas grid managers at ERCOT have been having to work constantly themselves day after day to keep lights and air conditioners running across the state as demand has risen to record levels, well above anything they’ve had accommodate in the past. ERCOT officials have been forced to issue requests for conservation measures by consumers most days since early August, and with high temperatures forecast to be well in excess of 100 degrees for this first full week in September, are likely to have to put out more such requests in the coming days.
In our interview, Allerman noted that power demand has risen as high as 85 GW on some recent days, exceeding pre-2022 records by as much as 5 GW. He says this summer compares to the very hot summer of 2011 in terms of daily heat. Power demand peaked that summer at 68.3 GW, but the state’s population has expanded by more than 15% since that time. Notably, though, the state’s power generators have failed to add materially to the state’s fleet of dispatchable thermal power plants since that year, leaving ERCOT increasingly at the mercy of weather-dependent wind and solar capacity to meet daily needs.
Allerman points to the rapid build-out of the state’s solar capacity in the past three years as a big factor in ERCOT’s ability to continue meeting demand this summer. “We do have more solar capacity, so that’s the good news,” he says. “The other good news is that we have a lot more [backup battery] storage now. We didn’t have any storage really [in past years], and we’re up to almost two gigs of storage now.”
The fact that most of the state has been mired in a drought throughout the summer has brought an abundance of sunshine, enabling solar to contribute at high levels during the daylight hours. Conversely, though, Texas’s massive wind fleet has under-performed throughout most of August due to lower-than-expected wind conditions in West Texas. The net result means that many natural gas and coal-fired power plants have had to remain in service and delay periodic maintenance that would have normally taken place to enable ERCOT to avoid any rolling blackout situations.
It is important to keep in mind here that peak consumer demand lasts into the evening hours, after solar’s contributions drop as the sun goes down. This has placed a great deal of pressure on the state’s fleet of natural gas plants, which have on many days provided well over half of overall generation during those peak hours.
While ERCOT has successfully managed through a very difficult summer, I asked Allerman about his outlook towards whether the success can continue through the coming winter, especially if the winter is colder than normal, or if Texas is hit with another winter storm approaching the extent of Uri, which forced days-long blackouts in February, 2021.
Here, Allerman points to reforms forced by the Texas legislature and regulators in the wake of Uri as a reason for some level of optimism. One big key is weatherization requirements for power plants and natural gas infrastructure. “ERCOT says they’re going out and investigating and tracking that. So, I’m taking their word for it,” he says.
He also notes that a big reason why some natural gas plants failed during the storm was that rolling blackouts by ERCOT cut off electric service to a great deal of natural gas delivery infrastructure. But new requirements implemented by Texas regulators have resulted in such infrastructure being designated as critical infrastructure, which should prevent that from happening again, “So, supply of natural gas to the plants should be a lot more reliable than before,” Allerman says.
While the Texas grid is tired as we approach the end of a very long and hot summer, everyone is hopeful that the fall will bring cooler temperatures and even some much-needed rain that will enable these overworked power plants to take a break to catch up on periodic maintenance and needed upgrades and repairs. No one can know what this winter will bring, but the state’s chronic shortage of dispatchable thermal capacity will certainly mean that all available hands must be ready to be on deck if another winter storm rolls in.